YouTube and audiobooks

Author Lindsay Buroker, one of the genuinely nicest people in indie publishing, began loading some of her audiobooks onto YouTube in 2020.

Buroker has a substantial following. She quickly racked up subscribers and views, and her channel received monetization approval. Buroker soon reported that she was earning more from YouTube views on her audio content than she was earning on some audiobook platforms. 

Then (see above Twitter thread) YouTube demonetized Buroker because her audiobooks aren’t “original content”. 

Of course, YouTube still reserves the right to run ads on her videos. Buroker just won’t receive any share of the revenue. Buroker has said that she’ll likely leave the first-in-series audiobooks up as lead magnets, and take down the rest. 

***

There are two sides to this, as there are to most things.

On one hand, YouTube provides a completely FREE video-hosting platform. Uploading videos to YouTube is not only FREE, but also easy and frictionless. Unless you’re posting something inflammatory, sexual, or sensational, you can post pretty much anything you want to. 

That said, all social media is essentially about digital sharecropping, from a content and monetization perspective. This includes YouTube (though YouTube does at least provide something valuable for free).

The takeaways are:

1.) On the Internet, if you aren’t paying for the product, you are the product.

2.) YouTube is still a good place to help build your brand. But it is not a reliable place to  build your business. 

**Buy Lindsay Buroker’s books on Amazon**

Ghostbusters, 1984

A quick musical note: On this date in 1984, Ray Parker Jr’s song “Ghostbusters” hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. As the above tweet mentions, the song remained in the top spot for three weeks.

The song was a tie-in with the movie, of course. And since this was the era in which MTV still played music videos, the song was also a big hit on MTV.

The Ghostbusters song, heavy on concept, was ideal for the highly visual MTV medium. Watch the video below. It is now hopelessly dated, but still kind of fun. 

What was your friendly author doing on August 11, 1984? Whereas I’ve just celebrated my 53rd birthday in 2021, on this date in 1984 I had just turned 16. I already had my learner’s permit, and I was learning how to drive. I took driver’s ed that summer, as I recall. 

“Ghostbusters” was one of the constantly played songs of the late summer of 1984, and it quickly faded away afterward. This is no slight on Ray Parker Jr. A song based on a comedy film about ghost hunters is only going to have so long of a shelf life. 

The result is that whenever I hear this song, it takes me back…to a better, vanished time, that long-ago summer of 1984.

Fifty-three

The author with maternal grandparents, 1968. (Both were then younger than I currently am.)

Today is my birthday. On August 9, 1968, I came into the world in the little town of Sparta, Wisconsin. (Or so I’ve been told, I don’t remember much about that day; I’m taking everyone’s word on the matter.)

I didn’t grow up in Wisconsin, either, or spend any significant portion of my life there. In 1968 my father was finishing up his enlistment in the US Army, and he was stationed at nearby Camp (now Fort) McCoy. About the only thing I did in Wisconsin was to be born there.

If I were a member of an earlier generation, I might remark about how much has changed in my lifetime. My paternal grandfather was born in 1909. That was before mass-market automobile ownership, the interstate highway system, commercial air travel, computers, and manned space flight. Not to mention nuclear power. My paternal grandfather watched all of those things come into existence between his birth and the age of 53.

Not me. All of the above had long existed by the time I was born. A few of those things have been significantly enhanced since my birth, computers being the most obvious. Some, like commercial air travel and the interstate highway system, are about the same.

But a few have actually seemed to move backwards. NASA landed a man on the moon in 1969, the year after I was born. (The first manned space flight was in 1961, seven years before my birth.) NASA hasn’t been back to the moon since 1972. And since the Three Mile Island disaster of 1979, Americans have become much less optimistic about the wonders of nuclear power.

In 1968, people were dying of cancer, heart disease, and communicable pathogens. People are still dying of cancer, heart disease, and communicable pathogens. But they didn’t have COVID in 1968. Or AIDS.

***

The major technological advances of my lifetime, of course, have been the Internet and digital technology. I reached early adulthood in an era of typewriters, landlines, and cassette-based answering machines. As a result, I certainly appreciate the Internet. But as paradigm-shifting developments go, Facebook and Twitter can’t compete with the first manned space flight or the invention of the computer itself…all of which came about during my paternal grandfather’s lifetime.

***

What about politics? The year I was born, 1968, America was bitterly divided over what are now called “the culture wars”. In many ways, we are still arguing over the 1960s.

The Soviet Union existed in 1968. As I turn 53, the USSR has been gone for almost thirty years. But Russia is now a different kind of adversary. China, for all practical purposes, has replaced a Maoist interpretation of Marxism-Leninism with statist crony capitalism. But China remains our adversary, too.

***

So much for the world. What about the age of 53 itself?

The decade of one’s fifties occupies a nebulous middle ground. In your fifties you are neither fish nor fowl. Young adults equate you with their parents. Elderly adults equate you with their children. I have actually been described as “old” and “young” in the same day, depending on who I’m interacting with.

This isn’t a roundabout way of saying 50 is the new 30. To be sure, once you reach the mid-century mark, you are no longer “young”, in the conventional sense of that word. As a rule, people in their fifties don’t compete in the Olympics, have children, and get married for the first time—things that twentysomethings and early thirtysomethings typically do. Many of my former classmates are now grandparents, in fact. Very few of them still have school-age children.

And yet, at the age of 53, there is still much to do, much that can be done. Fifty-three is a full generation younger than either of the final candidates for POTUS in 2020. (My parents were both born the same year as Donald Trump, in fact.)

***

I’ve almost certainly passed the halfway mark of my life. I don’t expect to be alive 53 years from now, in 2074.

And having reached the halfway mark, I feel a certain freedom as I face the years ahead.

There is no need to worry about impressing anyone when you hit 53. Once you’ve passed the age of 45 or so, you naturally tend to drop off society’s radar a bit. No one cares how “cool” you are anymore. In fact, for middle-age people, the bar for coolness is substantially lower than it is for 20- or 30-year-olds.

Even Jennifer Aniston (one year my junior, born in 1969) isn’t very hip nowadays, even if she’s exceptionally well-preserved. Never mind that she was the “it” girl of the 1990s. No one much under the age of 40 remembers the 1990s. And most people over the age of 40 no longer care about the 1990s.

***

Looking back on the last five decades, I have no major regrets. This doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t do anything differently. Of course I would do many things differently. There are times when I fantasize about riding a time machine back to 1987, and thwacking the 19-year-old version of myself on the head.

But there is a difference between looking back and saying, “Wow, what an idiot I was then!” and having deep, soul-piercing regrets about the past. Nor do I spend much time beating myself up over the wide knowledge and experience gap between 53 and 19. If I would have known better, I would have done better. Probably.

There is a lot more I could say, about loss, and mortality, and the importance of finding a spiritual compass for one’s life. But I have several writing projects on my plate, and I want to get them out into the world… while there is still time.

As noted above, at the age of 53, one no longer has the sense that time and life are virtually unlimited, barring major catastrophes—as most of us do at 19. At 53 there is still some sand in the hourglass; but there is a lot less sand than there used to be.

Original story idea vs. execution: which is more important?

The other day, one of you emailed me to get my take on an age-old debate in writing, filmmaking, and storytelling circles:

Which matters more…the big, highly original idea, or the execution of the story, regardless of its originality?

Many writers fret constantly about people “stealing their ideas”. They put off writing because they “don’t have any original ideas”. They worry about forgetting ideas.

So which is more important? There is evidence for both.

Star Wars took off in 1977 partly because it was such an original idea. Here we had the rough equivalents of cowboys and samurai warriors in space. There had never been anything like that before.

In 2013, I first read about The Americans in the television and movie review section of a magazine. The highly original premise of The Americans— deep undercover Russian spies in Reagan-era America—instantly intrigued me.

The Americans intrigued a lot of people. The Americans ran from 2013 to 2018. During that time, the Cold War period drama received high marks from reviewers and viewers alike. The series has a 96% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The Google composite review score is 4.8 out of 5. That’s pretty close to unanimity, at a time when people widely disagree about almost everything.

Nevertheless, it is easy to imagine The Americans having become nothing more than a Tom Clancy-esque knock-off for cable television. Why didn’t that happen?

The Americans is, indeed, based on a highly innovative “big idea”, what movie and fiction folks like to call “high concept”. But it is in the execution that The Americans really shines: the depth and arc of the characters, the nuts and bolts of each episode.

Plenty of stories succeed in the world of books and film without being very “high concept” at all. Consider the success of Downton Abbey. There is no high concept in Downton Abbey. It is little more than a soap opera set in Edwardian England, in fact.

When I watched the first episode of Downton Abbey, I didn’t know what I was going to think of it. But I was blown away. Not because of the “big idea” (there was none), but because of the execution: characters and individual episodes. The success of Downton Abbey is all in the execution.

An example in the book world would be Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. Jonathan Franzen is inconsistent as a writer. (He takes an average of about 6 years to write each book.) He is eccentric as an individual. But he scored a home run with The Corrections in 2001.

I remember getting my hands on this book over the Christmas holiday of 2001. I sat down and read it cover-to-cover, over a period of about 48 hours.

There is no high concept in The Corrections, either. A highly autobiographical novel, The Corrections is a fictionalized adaptation of people and events from the author’s life. But the world that Franzen creates in this book, while mundane, pulls you in. It pulled me in, and it pulled in millions of other readers, too.

***

On the opposite side of this coin are the high concept stories that fall flat because of poor execution.

We have all been bored by stories with incredibly high stakes: literally the end of humanity, in some cases. They bore us because of flaws in characterization, pacing, or depth.

This shows up in a lot of 2- and 3-three star Amazon reviews, that begin with phrases like, “I really wanted to like this book, but…”. Others outright say, “Great idea, but poor execution.”

For me, The Expanse fell into this category. This was true of both the book(s) and the Syfy series.

The premise of The Expanse did intrigue me: neither a near-future alien encounter tale, nor a space opera set in deep space, The Expanse is set a few centuries from the present, within our solar system.

But when I actually dug into the first book, it left me cold. The characters were flat, and there were too many of them. The narrative was unfocused. I had the same reaction a few years later, when I tried the Syfy series. I just couldn’t get into it.

Some of you will disagree with me, of course, but I’m not the only one who found the execution of The Expanse lacking. And I am not someone who dislikes science fiction. I loved the original version of Battlestar Galactica in the 1970s, as well as the “reimagined version” in the 2000s (though with some reservations).

Battlestar Galactica, whether in the hands of Glen A. Larson in the 1970s, or SyFy in the 00s, featured good execution.

But was Battlestar Galactica high concept? Highly original?

20th Century Fox certainly didn’t think so. In 1978, 20th Century Fox sued Universal Studios for allegedly ripping off Star Wars. The lawsuit claimed that Battlestar Galactica had filched more than thirty distinct ideas from Star Wars.

Whether you accept this notion or not, there is no doubt that the original BSG rode the coattails of Star Wars, which was then a monolithic phenomenon of popular culture.

And the rebooted BSG wasn’t original at all. It was based on the 1978 series, which owed much to Star Wars.

***

I’m therefore going to come down on the side of execution over big, original idea.

There are so many stories that we’ve all seen time and time again:

The rough-edged police detective who chafes against “the brass”, but will go to any length to catch a criminal…

  • The star-crossed lovers…
  • The ex-green beret whose daughter has been kidnapped…
  • The sympathetic vampire
  • Aliens/zombies/other monsters disrupt human society…
  • and so on…

Nevertheless, both novelists and filmmakers continue to find fresh new angles on these old ideas…new ways to execute them.

Join Amazon Prime – Watch Thousands of Movies & TV Shows Anytime – Start Free Trial Now

***

For example: I recently enjoyed the final season of Bosch on Amazon Prime Video.

Bosch is based on Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch novels. The Harry Bosch novels are about a big-city homicide detective, Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch.

I don’t think that Michael Connelly would mind me saying: that’s a very old idea. Nothing original at all in the “concept”! But the Harry Bosch novels represent some of the best genre fiction out there.

Why? Because Michael Connelly’s execution of the character of Harry Bosch, of the murder cases, is so darn good.

Originality, in other words, might be overrated. To be sure, there is a place for it. (It is also a bad idea to jump on literary bandwagons; but that’s a separate topic for another day).

It is probably better to focus on the superlative execution of a “good” story idea—even if it’s been done before—versus waiting around for one superlative idea to come the writer’s way.

Music from the summer of ’88

It remains one of my missions here to remind readers (especially those too young to remember), that our culture wasn’t always as angry, self-destructive, and generally mucked up as it currently is.

Music often reflects the spirit of the times.  The summer of 1988 was a happy time. Ronald Reagan was in the White House, the US economy was booming, and the dominant mood was one of optimism. (You sure could use a bit of optimism nowadays, couldn’t you?)

In the summer of 1988, I was in college. During that summer, I worked as a bagger at Thriftway, a now defunct grocery store chain in the Cincinnati area. (I also did stints in produce and seafood, if you want to get technical about it.)

That was a summer of some great music. No protest music to speak of, just songs about falling in love, getting on a roll, or going for a drive with your girl (or guy) on a summer night. 

Below are some of my favorite songs from that long-ago summer of 1988. These are songs that take me back…and might take you back, too, if you were around then.

R.I.P. Dusty Hill

I am part of the MTV generation. I turned 14 in 1982, the year MTV took off.

ZZ Top’s breakout album, Eliminator, came out in 1983. The music on the album was certainly quite good, and has stood the test of time. I think it’s fair to say, though, that MTV was pivotal in ZZ Top’s breakout success. MTV, alas, was a highly visual medium.

And ZZ Top was a very visual band. The group also mastered the MTV format.

ZZ Top was known for its two frontmen, Dusty Hill and Billy Gibbons. With long flowing beards and fedoras, Hill and Gibbons were anachronisms even in the early 1980s. 

Dusty Hill passed away earlier this week, from undisclosed causes at the age of 72.

Requiescat in pace, Mr. Hill. You made some fine music, which brings back fond memories for millions of Gen Xers like me.

***

And now, in honor of Dusty Hill, my favorite ZZ Top video, for the song “Legs”.

Both the song and the video are everything the 1980s was, and the present decade is not: sensual, unashamed, and (most of all): fun

 

How Kindle Unlimited readers behave

Written Word Media, which owns both Free Booksy and Bargain Booksy, recently published a study on Kindle Unlimited (KU) readers, and how they behave. 

Here are the big takeaways:

  • While Amazon does not reveal KU enrollment numbers, there are probably about 3.3 million active members. (That is approximately the 2021 population of Utah.)
  • Kindle Unlimited readers most eagerly devour romance, fantasy, and mystery.
  • Many Kindle Unlimited readers are “whale” readers. (Especially the romance readers, one suspects.)

The study suggests that horror doesn’t do well in KU. On the contrary,  I’ve found that my horror titles do get a fair degree of love in Kindle Unlimited. The Rockland Horror series has done well in terms of KU page reads, with relatively little advertising. 

On the other hand, my espionage thriller, The Consultant, draws more buyers than KU readers. And my corporate thrillers, The Eavesdropper and Termination Man, barely get any KU page reads at all. 

Readers read what they want, and writers write what they want. No harm, no foul. If I were writing romance or urban fantasy with young adult protagonists, I know that I would be getting a ton more page reads. But…I just can’t. 

The preferences of KU readers are neither good nor bad. But they are something that every writer should consider, when deciding whether or not to enroll a specific title in the program. 

***

Are you a writer? Read the full report from Written Word Media here.

Are you a reader? Click here for a FREE Kindle Unlimited trial.

Listening to ‘Fevre Dream’ by George R.R. Martin

Long before he was known as the novelist behind the HBO series Game of Thrones, George R.R. Martin wrote a vampire novel called Fevre Dream.

Fevre Dream is set on the Mississippi River, just before the American Civil War. Abner Marsh is a riverboat captain who is down on his luck. Joshua York is a vampire who needs a human partner for an atypical “mission”.

Originally published in 1982, Fevre Dream is one of GRRM’s best works. I understand that A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones has become a veritable force of nature in recent years. But many of Martin’s earlier works are just as good, and require much less of a time commitment. (Martin also wrote tons of short stories and novellas, many of which have been compiled into two collections that you can get on Amazon.)

The vampire of Fevre Dream is not a supernatural creature, but a separate-but-similar race of quasi-humans. This alternative interpretation of the vampire is now common, but it would have been innovative in 1982. 

The interplay between the two main characters is the best part of Fevre Dream. Abner Marsh is a gruff but good-hearted riverboat man. Joshua York is an urbane antihero who is trying to overcome his bloodthirsty nature. Abner and Joshua need each other, and yet their basic worldviews are very much in conflict. The perfect dramatic setup.

Throughout the book, there is a competing group of evil vampires in Louisiana, who will ultimately come into conflict with Abner and Joshua (who gathers other “good” vampires to him). This plot device, too, is now common. But once again, it would have been original in 1982.

The Mississippi River is also a character in the book. George R.R. Martin is originally from New Jersey. But he spent some time as an instructor at Clarke University in Dubuque, Iowa during the 1970s. Dubuque is situated on the upper Mississippi. Martin would have gained a familiarity with the river during his time in Iowa, and that familiarity definitely shows up Fevre Dream.

I initially read Fevre Dream back in 2009. My rule of thumb is: If ten years have passed since I read a particular book or saw a particular movie, the story may be worth experiencing again. None of us is the same person we were a decade ago, and so a story will mean something different to us after an interval of ten years. (We’ll also, in most cases, have forgotten significant portions of the plot.)

Another difference is that this time, I’m listening to the audiobook version of Fevre Dream. As I noted in a previous post, I have developed the habit of listening to audiobooks while I mow my lawn and do other yard work. And this is July, the season for such things. 

**View George RR Martin’s Fevre Dream on Amazon**

‘Major Tom (Coming Home)’ by Peter Schilling: 1980s rock moment

A handful of German musical acts made the US charts in the 1980s. Most of them were in the genre of new wave/synthpop. 

Perhaps the best known was Nena, with her “99 Luftballons”. Then there was Falco, with “Amadeus”, in 1986. 

And then there was this guy: Peter Schilling. The above song, “Major Tom (Coming Home)” has been a bigger deal since the 1980s have been over, than it ever was during the 1980s. The song was used in the 1980s spy drama The Americans, and several other films about the last decade of the Cold War.

Honestly, I was very into music in those days, and I barely remember this song. It peaked at 14 on the US Billboard Hot 100 in 1983. I should remember it better. Perhaps the two FM pop/rock stations in Cincinnati weren’t very enthralled with it. (I do vaguely recall seeing the above video on MTV.)

That said, this is a song that captures a key part of the musical zeitgeist of the 1980s. Rock musicians in those days were not afraid of doing bombastic songs with overly ambitious themes. This was not only the over-the-top 1980s, it was also the Cold War. Thanks to Carl Sagan, there was a renewed interest in space, and the space shuttle was still a relative novelty.

That all came out in the music. Themes of space travel and nuclear war were therefore common, as well as all manner of futuristic themes.

***

‘Major Tom’ is a quirky, moody song, with a refrain that I find oddly captivating.

There is no love plot in this song, so far as I can tell. Nor can I tell you exactly what Peter Schilling was trying to say here. But I like the result.

Speaking of Peter Schilling: I understand that he has had a long, successful career in his native Germany. In the US, he is mostly known for this song. 

***

Note: Before someone emails me…Like all good music fans of the 1980s, I am aware of the Scorpions. But the Scorpions were not new wave. (They were heavy metal.) The Scorpions were the biggest German musical act of the 1980s; but they are in a completely separate category, and in a class by themselves. 

 

Kindle Vella: some reactions from writers thus far

I haven’t yet taken the plunge into Amazon’s Kindle Vella platform. This isn’t because of any principle-driven objection on my part. I actually like the idea of serial fiction.

What I don’t like are the genres that presently dominate serial fiction on sites like Wattpad: YA romance, teen werewolf fantasies, and (of course) endless stories about teenagers with super-powers.

Nothing wrong with any of these categories, mind you. But I’m a 53-year-old adult. I don’t play in those fields, and have no interest in starting now.

***

Vincent V. Triola is another 50-something writer. Having perused his online footprint, I suspect that his politics are a bit to the left of mine. (That’s okay, most writers have politics to the left of mine.) But we’re both old enough to remember the pre-Amazon, pre-Internet literary world. I suspect that Mr. Triola, like me, spent some time in mall bookstores in the era of Ronald Reagan and Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

Mr. Triola is pessimistic on Vella, having dipped his toe into it. Writing on Medium, he describes Vella as “a writer-driven marketplace”. What this basically means (for those unfamiliar with Wattpad) is that most of the readers in a given literary marketplace are fellow (and competing) writers.

This is perfectly acceptable on Wattpad, which is youth-centric and mostly free. Wattpad also appeals to the generation that loves social media, and lots of step-by-step peer group engagement. My teenage years ended long before Instagram and TikTok, but I can easily imagine hormone-soaked, teenage brains lighting up with every social media “like”. We are all pack animals below the age of twenty-one or so.

But this community-based, social media-esque approach isn’t as appropriate for a paid platform like Amazon, where most readers aren’t hawking their own books and stories, too. There is nothing wrong with readers who are also writers, of course. But when that becomes the entire basis for a marketplace, the marketplace tends to become incestuous and spammy. (I’ve definitely seen this on YouTube, with all the “sub for sub” comment spam.)

As evidence for his claim, Triola notes that Vella has been almost exclusively marketed to authors thus far. This is a fair observation. I interact with Amazon as both a reader and a writer. I’ve received all Amazon’s communications about Vella so far via my writing communication channel.

Finally, Triola mentions that Amazon emphasizes the youth-centric genres that comprise most of Wattpad. There is only one tag for nonfiction. But “nonfiction” includes everything from historical biographies to automotive repair, to horticulture.

***

On the other side of this coin, some of the writers in several Facebook groups where I lurk are quite bullish on Vella. Almost all of them, however, write in the YA fantasy and/or romance fields. Back to some of Mr. Triola’s points.

Also, Amazon does now have a large banner ad for Vella on the front page of the Kindle store. So if Amazon isn’t exactly pushing Vella at readers, it isn’t exactly hiding it, either.

***

What is Amazon’s longterm strategy with Vella? Vella is obviously intended to be a Wattpad-killer, and Wattpad, as noted above, is all about YA fantasy and romance.

My guess is that Amazon realizes that YA fantasy/romance readers and writers tend to be “different” from readers and writers in other genres.

For one thing, the boundaries between readers and writers tend to be a lot more fluid in these genres. Note the prevalence of YA fan fiction. No one writes fan fiction based on the novels of John Grisham, Michael Connelly, or Clive Cussler. But there are online oceans of fan fiction for Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games—all of which are focused on a predominantly youthful market. The Wattpad format is appealing to writers of fan fiction because of the low barriers to entry.

Also, this group, being younger, usually has less disposable income. As noted above, Wattpad is a mostly free platform. Amazon is probably uncertain about the long-term monetization prospects for Vella, beyond the writers who are presently participating. (As an adult reader, I have very little interest in paying for serial fiction installments, for whatever that’s worth.)

***

We shall see. No one knows how Vella is going to turn out, or if it will even exist a year from now. After all, Amazon has in the past killed initiatives that proved unprofitable or unmanageable, like Kindle Worlds.

For now, I’m going to continue my wait-and-see approach with Kindle Vella.

‘Neverknock’: quick review

On Halloween 1986, three young people lose their lives in a series of supernatural events at an abandoned house. The house becomes an urban legend. In the present day (circa 2017), a group of teenagers accidentally awaken the house’s dormant powers. The forces inside the house take the young people down, one-by-one. 

That’s the setup for the Syfy original film, Neverknock.

When viewing (or reviewing) any “Syfy original” movie, one is wise to set the bar low. That’s what I did when I sat down to watch Neverknock

The urban legend is an inexhaustible source of horror film and fiction. I can’t fault the premise of Neverknock, but there are some issues with the execution.

The opening incident involves some over-the-top phenomena, making it difficult for the viewer to suspend his sense of disbelief. It only gets worse from there. There is a monster that appears repeatedly throughout the film that looks like a leftover from a 1980s horror film.

The cheesy special effects are a big part of the problem with this movie. Watch A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) today, and the special effects will look amateurish by today’s standards. But A Nightmare on Elm Street was made almost 40 years ago. Viewer expectations have changed since then. (That’s even true of older viewers like me, who can remember A Nightmare on Elm Street when it first debuted at the cinema.

The bottom line is this: If a filmmaker doesn’t have the budget for modern special effects, the best option is to not attempt them.

And this is quite possible. Sometimes the best horror is found in what is left unseen, to the imagination. But Neverknock shoves it in all your face, and what it shoves at you simply isn’t credible. As I watched the movie, I could not help noticing the figurative zipper in the figurative monster suit.

The acting was decent, given that this was a movie about mostly vapid teenagers who are killed off in rapid succession in gruesome ways. I especially appreciated the performance of Dominique Provost-Chalkley (of Wynonna Earp fame). Hers was the only character with any real depth.

Some movies linger with you for days, for reasons both good and bad. This is a movie that you’ll forget within a few hours of watching it. 

‘The Empty Man’: quick review

In 1995, four twentysomethings are hiking through remote Bhutan. Once of them is infected with a tulpa, a spiritual being that is created through deep, mystical concentration, according to Tibetan lore.

The other three young adults are killed.

Decades later, in 2018, young people in a Missouri River town begin acting strangely. Then some truly horrific things happen.

That’s about as much as I dare tell you without getting into spoilers.

This movie had a very interesting premise, certainly an original one. There were a few genuinely creepy moments. The mystery within the film, moreover, was so tightly concealed that it kept me guessing till the end. 

There was a noticeable problem with the pacing, however. The screenwriter and producer tried to pack too much story into a 2 hour, 20 minute-movie (which was already long, by today’s feature film standards).

The result was an uneven progression of the plot. There were portions in the middle that seemed to drag. Meanwhile, the ending was kind of rushed.

This is an example of a movie that would have been better as a miniseries. There were multiple storylines, and a complex premise to begin with. A lot to tie up in a little more than two hours, and the the makers of The Empty Man didn’t quite succeed. 

80s rock moment: REO Speedwagon

One of the great bands of my youth was REO Speedwagon. The band’s most commercially successful albums, Hi Infidelity (1980), Wheels Are Turnin’ (1985) and Life As We Know It (1987) were all released in my adolescent/teen years.

REO Speedwagon’s ballad, “Can’t Fight This Feeling” was near the top of the charts throughout the spring of 1985, my junior year in high school.

In the above video, the band’s lead singer, Kevin Cronin, performs the song as a duet with his daughter at a music festival in 2019.

This is a song about falling in love, so nothing original about the theme. But there are a million ways to fall in love, and a million angles on it. The angle here is innocence, commitment, etc. There was something refreshing about this ballad even in the comparatively simple world of 1985. It is especially refreshing now, in these cynical, dysfunctional times of the 2o2os. 

“What started out as friendship has grown stronger…” That would be a good way to fall in love, wouldn’t it?

The first ‘Star Wars’ generation

I remember sitting in a cinema one day in the early summer of 1977. I was just shy of nine years old, so I was there with my dad.

My dad wanted to see this new movie called Star Wars.

I didn’t really know what to expect, but my dad (then barely in his thirties) was excited about it. So I went along, too. My mom had no interest the movie. (My mom liked very few movies that didn’t involve horses.)

I remember watching the opening scenes. The big spaceships on the big screen. Oh, man, I was immediately hooked.

I know: this essay has already veered into cliché. By this point, everyone has seen those scenes in the original Star Wars movie. The CGI effects in 21st-century movies like Avatar, moreover, have since surpassed our collective ability to be visually amazed.

But keep in mind: in 1977, the average feature film was a Burt Reynolds movie that relied on conventional car chases. (In fact, one such movie—Smokey and the Bandit—was released within a few weeks of Star Wars.)

Most of the available science fiction in 1977 was campy and already a decade old. There was Star Trek, of course. But Star Trek was made in the 1960s, and it showed in the production values.

There was also Lost in Space, which had its original prime-time run between 1965 and 1968. (Oh, and the first season of Lost in Space was in black and white.)

I won’t tell you about Star Wars and how it was different because well…you already know. But you might not know what it was like to be part of the first Star Wars generation.

To truly get that, you have to have been there.

America in the 1970s was an unsettled place. The country was on a hangover from Vietnam, the counterculture, the 1960s, Watergate.

Many of the Baby Boomers, then at the peak of their childbearing years, were trying to reconcile parenthood with all the Me Generation stuff.

I should note that my parents were the exception in this regard. I had wonderful parents and—on the whole—an idyllic childhood. But my childhood was the exception. This was an era of small families, divorce, and adults working in parenthood as an afterthought. The 1970s was not a child-focused decade, on the whole.

This showed up in the marketplace. Corporate America didn’t put out much entertainment for children, because the demand wasn’t there, like it was from the mid-1980s onward. For most children, circa 1976, Saturday morning cartoons (mostly reruns from the 1960s) were the highlight of the week.

But then there was Star Wars. If you were a kid in that era, Star Wars was not just a movie, but a way of life…or a way of play, anyway.

Star Wars trading card, 1977

Publishers cranked out Star Wars trading cards and comics. Toy manufacturers rushed light sabers and action figures to market. There was always something new to buy…or to beg your parents to buy.

Burger Chef, a now defunct fast food chain, issued a set of Star Wars posters in 1977. Each one was given away with the purchase of a double hamburger meal, or something like that. I talked my parents into acquiring all of them.

My bedroom became a shrine to Star Wars. My room contained not just the posters, but all the paraphernalia I could acquire.

Burger Chef Star Wars poster 1977

I’ve watched the more recent Star Wars movies. I know that the last few have been controversial among longtime fans. I’m not interested in wading into that debate. For me, the first three movies—Star Wars (1977), The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983) are the only three “canonical” ones, anyway.

These three films traced the end of my childhood, effectively. I was nine when the first one came out. When Return of the Jedi hit the local cinema, I had completed a year of high school.

But this is about more than mere nostalgia. In recent years, the culture wars have invaded science fiction, superhero comics, and whatnot. There was little appetite for that in the late 1970s and 1980s.

Why? That era was already full of gloomy, abstruse movies that were overloaded with “message” and “issues”. And in the 1970s, the issue du jour was the Vietnam War, which was still very much in recent memory.

And so we got turgid, barely watchable films like The Deer Hunter (1978), Taxi Driver (1976), and Apocalypse Now (1979). In 1978, I remember hearing a news story about a Vietnam vet shooting himself at a screening of The Deer Hunter. That movie is incredibly gloomy and depressing to watch, as are the other two. (And the Jodie Foster scenes in Taxi Driver, in which she plays a child prostitute, are downright bizarre by today’s standards.)

Star Wars offered a break from all that. Star Wars was a movie about a war in space that didn’t ask you to think about Vietnam. Nor did it ask you to think about the nuclear arms race—another big “issue” of that time.

The original Star Wars trilogy had a relatively diverse cast. It wasn’t all white males in the spotlight. Who can imagine Star Wars without Carrie Fisher, after all? And the third movie of the original trilogy made a major star of Billy Dee Williams.

And yet, Star Wars didn’t ask audiences to engage in endless navel-gazing about race and gender. (These matters now greatly preoccupy the fandom of science fiction publishing, but that’s another “issue” for another time.)

The original three Star Wars movies were simply fun. They weren’t controversial. They didn’t try to change your worldview or your politics. Practically everyone liked them. (Even my mother relented and saw the second and third Star Wars movies, despite their lack of horses.)

And if you were a kid in the late 1970s, Star Wars was larger than life.

I’ll close with a blunt assertion: I think it’s high time for the film and comics industries to retire the franchise. To put this in perspective: I was not quite nine when the first movie came out. I’ll soon be fifty-three, and they’re still riding the Star Wars wagon, trying to squeeze a few more million out of the original story concept.

But who cares what I think? Maybe I’ll see the next Star Wars movie, and maybe I won’t. It’s not like I’m boycotting them. But like I said: for me, the first three are the only ones that really count.